We had an interesting and somewhat troubling experience this summer in Kibera. We had two NHI teams at our Kibera Academy campus who were participating in a variety of special projects and our students were also involved in important mid term testing, so it was a very busy day in the midst of a busy week. About midday on Wednesday I noticed a few unfamiliar faces who were obviously visitors on campus. So I asked them who they were and why they were on our compound. Their response surprised me a good deal. They were on a mission trip to Uganda and their flight had been delayed so they wanted to see a poor neighborhood in Nairobi. With that limited response the visitor grabbed a child's hand and marched into one of our classrooms. At first glance this may seem pretty innocent to you, however it is a situation that is wrong on so many levels. This is the type of behavior that gives short term missions trips a bad reputation and even causes people to question the validity of such an experience. Let's examine the different levels on which this encounter was so wrong. 1. The visitors did not speak with the administration before entering the school. Can you imagine taking a group of people into an American school and wandering the hallways and entering the classrooms without permission? Do African schools deserve any less security and respect than American schools.
2. Poverty is not a tourist attraction to be visited like a monument or national park. The residents of Kibera are a wonderful community of individuals who will lovingly welcome you to their neighborhood IF you have come as a friend. However, it is an affront to their dignity to treat this community like just another stop on your mission to "save Africa."
3. It shows a great amount of arrogance and a significant lack of respect. To interrupt a busy school schedule, to the point of entering classrooms uninvited, because some how you think your mere presence there should warrant every one else altering their routine for you.
4. YOU MUST EARN THE RIGHT TO BE INVOLVED. Even the best intentioned short term mission trip is severely lacking if it is only another stop on your or your church's tour of the world. It is subtly demeaning and overtly discouraging to residents of communities like Kibera when visitors come and have activities, evangelistic events, or even charitable activity but have no commitment to any long term involvement in a neighborhood. Poorly done mission trips have conditioned the local residents to welcome people into their hearts and lives and yet often they know they will never see them again and that is a bittersweet hurt. It is so important that mission trips are done right. We earn the right everyday for our involvement in Kibera and the other places NHI works. We earn it through prayer. We earn it through investment. We earn it through love. We earn it through longevity. It is personally offensive for me to have people with no commitment whatsoever to run in for an hour and take pictures with our kids and leave with a false sense of accomplishment. Good short term missions involves training, preparation, sensitivity, humility, and commitment. At New Hope Initiative we may not always do it perfectly, but we constantly strive to bring our teams into a mutually rewarding partnership with local ministries where each party learns, grows, and is affirmed through the experience. May God please spare us any more "mission trip tourists."